An Editor’s Biggest ‘Uh-Uh!’ Moments
I’ve been asked to briefly discuss a few of those things that, when receiving a story or book submission from an author, will cause even hardened editors to weep and will necessitate the rejection of a manuscript, no matter its ‘potential.’ So, here are two of the biggest ‘Uh-Uh’ moments that editors encounter when receiving manuscript submissions and which writers should learn to avoid.
First, there seems to be an all-too-prevalent myth circulating that so long as a writer’s story is ‘great,’ [frequently so, and solely, determined by the judgment of the writer and a few trusted and friendly ‘first readers’] the writer need not worry about such things as proper spelling, grammar, and/or punctuation and that a writer need not even proof their manuscript, or bother to rewrite/revise a first draft before submitting it – “because that’s what editors are for and it is their job to make all such corrections.” Uh-Uh! If an editor begins to read a manuscript and begins to encounter error after error, numerous typos, spelling and punctuation errors, and/or bad grammar, all of these act to keep pulling the editor out of the actual story. And most editors will rapidly reach a point where they will simply stop reading and set aside the manuscript. There is virtually always a very large pile of submissions in an editor’s “In Box” and editors are also usually under tight deadlines and time pressures. It is far easier to toss aside a problematical manuscript and reach for the next one, knowing that there will likely be more than sufficient numbers of manuscripts in that pile that have obviously been rewritten/refined and proofed to the extent that it is obvious some care was put into the presentation of the manuscript—combined with the manuscript also telling a good story.
In short: don’t submit first drafts of work that you’ve not bothered to proof yourself or have proofed by someone else—who knows what they are doing—for obvious, common errors. This isn’t to say that the manuscript must be perfect—merely that even after a preliminary review for errors, while some errors will invariably still exist within the manuscript, they won’t appear in such numbers and/or so egregiously that they both undermine the integrity of the work and obviously indicate to the editor that the writer really does not care about the work being submitted. Editors want to feel that the writer cares deeply about whatever work he or she is submitting, and has cared enough to make it the best it can be. When the number of obvious, easily discernable such errors on a page begin to exceed the number of paragraphs on the page (and we sometimes encounter manuscripts where these errors begin to exceed the number of sentences on the page), that manuscript is in trouble...Yeah, I hear all you neophyte/newer authors out there whispering—and yes, it is true that a Stephen King or Ramsey Campbell or Clive Barker could get away with turning in a manuscript filled with such errors without fear of rejection. However, it is part of what makes them the successful authors they are that they don’t and didn’t submit such ‘lazy’ work in the first place.
Lastly, some writers are under the impression that if they take some of the most popular elements from various then currently in vogue stories and/or sub-genres within the horror genre and simply combine them, that this constitutes sufficiently original storytelling. This usually leads to clichéd characters, hackneyed story lines, and plot devices that seem to largely regurgitate what has already come before. Note that we are not talking here about an author writing a new title for an established, ongoing and popular series of books—as this constitutes a well-recognized exception, where the audience actually wants to see/read certain returning characters and situations; though even then, with additions and variations on what’s preceded it.
Neither editors, publishers, nor readers wish to read yet another work with the same stereotypical characters, with only name changes, being placed within the same stereotypical situations. Uh-Uh! Writers wishing to submit a manuscript that is likely to be purchased and published will submit a manuscript that contains a unique aspect/hook/plot or character device that differentiates their manuscript from everything that has preceded it.
In short: give us something original. Now, there are a myriad of ways to go about this: sometimes this can be as easy as changing the sex, race, age, species, etc. of your Protagonist and/or Antagonist, you can take some aspect to an extreme, or raise the stakes, or use irony, or create a unique main character/Protagonist, and/or any of a million other things—the range is as unlimited as your creativity. Just try and provide the reader (and thus the editor and publisher) with something appreciably fresh/unconventional/dissimilar/transformative to that which has already been done. Many times, just so altering a single character or plot point or perspective can materially alter a story. The significant difference here is similar to that between human reproduction as opposed to cloning: in the former, the result is something unique, but which shares certain characteristics of those that preceded and gave birth to it, while in the latter, you merely wind up with a nearly-exact copy of that which preceded it.
Obviously, we’ve here only had the time and space to barely scratch the surface of those things in a manuscript that writers, especially the less experienced, should avoid turning in to editors. But I hope it is of some value as a learning experience and as a starting point for continued discussion. In which regard, in closing, though I don’t believe he was entirely correct, I hope that you will read and view what was written above through the prism of these words of Marcus Aurelius (both a Philosopher and Roman Emperor!):
Norman L. Rubenstein
Senior Managing Editor-–JournalStone Publishing
Co-Chair—HWA Bram Stoker Awards® Committee
Rubenstein, a former litigation attorney and Administrative Law Judge in Chicago, IL for over twenty years, brings to JounalStone over seven years experience as an editor, magazine columnist, horror literature and film reviewer, and author and is celebrating his first anniversary as Senior Managing Editor at JournalStone Publishing. Rubenstein previously organized and presented a number of large science fiction conventions in conjunction with the BBC for their Doctor Who television series and was featured on a nationally televised segment of the Entertainment Tonight TV show back in the 1980′s. He went on to co-produce ten stage plays including one, Murder By Misadventure, that ran upon London’s famed West End for six months, and a world premiere of an A. R. Gurney play, The Fourth Wall, starring George Segal and Betty Buckley in Chicago.
As an author, Rubenstein has had extensive work published in numerous publications, including Cemetery Dance, Dark Scribe, Dark Discoveries, and Shroud Magazines, has written regular columns for Fear Zone and Shroud, is and/or has been a regular reviewer for Horror World and Hellnotes as well as serving a stint as the Reviewer for the Pod Of Horror podcast hosted by author and professional radio host, Mark Justice, and is a frequent convention speaker, panelist, and moderator.
As an author, Rubenstein has also had short fiction stories he’s co-written published in the anthologies Fear Of The Dark, by Horror Bound Magazine Publications (“The Closet” co-authored with Carol Weekes, 20111) and the recent prestigious charity anthology, Horror for Good, Cutting Block Press (“The Widows Laveau” with Steven Booth, 2012), which anthology is a Finalist for the 2012 Bram Stoker Award®. Rubenstein’s work has also appeared in the prominent David Morrell and Hank Wagner edited hardcover Anthology, Thrillers: 100 Must Reads from Oceanview Publishing (2010), and the “Editor’s Foreword” to the Dark Regions Press lettered hardcover edition of Gene O’Neill’s HWA Bram Stoker Award® winning collection Taste Of Tenderloin (2012).
As an editor, Rubenstein has been the editor for numerous works by many prominent authors, including novels, novellas, and collections, a number of which have been named as Finalists for the Bram Stoker Awards®, and one work that went on to win the Bram Stoker Award. Over the last seven years, Rubenstein has edited well over thirty books by authors including: Allyson Bird, Christopher Conlon, Edward Erdelac, Gabrielle Faust, Jim Gavin, Angeline Hawkes, Michael Kelly, Brian Knight, Edward Lee, Rena Mason, Michael McBride, James R. Moore, Lisa Morton, Weston Ochse, William Ollie, Gene O’Neill, Anderson Prunty, Gina Ranalli, Gord Rollo, Steven Savile, Harry Shannon, David Silva, Jeff Strand, Steve Vernon, Carol Weekes, Wrath James White, and David Niall Wilson, among others.
Rubenstein is an active member of both the International Thriller Writers (ITW) and Horror Writers Associations (HWA), has been a member of and then served two years as Chair of the HWA’s Stoker Additions Jury, completed a stint as the Chair of the 2011 HWA’s Stoker Anthology Jury, and has most recently started his third year as Co-Chair of the HWA’s Bram Stoker Awards™ Committee. He is also the editor of the Souvenir Program Book for The Bram Stoker Awards® Weekend 2013 Incorporating The World Horror Convention.